Psychological research can aid in promoting social justice

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Thurgood Marshall in his argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education cited the research of Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark. Those were the now-famous doll studies demonstrating that segregation affects how Black children feel about themselves. That 1954 ruling started a cascade of changes. While racism is still prevalent almost 70 years later, some of the state-sponsored systemic barriers have come done.

Some of them.

Step into the shoes of a Black man charged with a crime. Your case goes to a jury trial. The jury is comprised of all white people. And the jury room, maintained by a chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, prominently features a Confederate flag. Would you feel that your jury was impartial? Tim Gilbert and his attorneys did not. For a summary of this case, read the freely available APA Div 9: Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues column in the June 2022 issue of the Monitor on Psychology, “Legacies of racism in our halls of justice” (Anderson & Najdowski, 2022).

Gilbert’s trial was held in 2020 at the Giles County courthouse in Pulaski, TN. “[T]he jury retired to the jury room during every recess, for every meal, and for its deliberations” (p. 29 of appeals court ruling.) While there were other Confederacy memorabilia in the jury room—including a portrait of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, the defense team took primary issue with the Confederate flag. (See a photo.) “In its amicus brief, the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (‘TACDL’), noting that ‘[m]ultiple courts have recognized the racially hostile and disruptive nature of the Confederate flag,’ argues that ‘a jury’s exposure to Confederate Icons denies the defendant a fair trial free of extraneous prejudicial information and improper outside influence’” (p. 19 of appeals court ruling).

In the TACDL amicus brief, they cited a 2011 Political Psychology article (Ehrlinger et al., 2011). The article features two experiments conducted in 2008. In the first, volunteers who were subliminally shown images of a Confederate flag were less likely to express interest in voting for Obama. In the second experiment—the one that I found more compelling—volunteers who were exposed to a folder with a Confederate flag sticker ostensibly left by someone else who had been in the room were more likely to evaluate a description of a Black man more negatively. (Read this section of the amicus brief.) Quoted in the amicus brief was the researchers’ conclusion: “Our studies show that, whether or not the Confederate flag includes other nonracist meanings, exposure to this flag evokes responses that are prejudicial. Thus, displays of the Confederate flag may do more than inspire heated debate, they may actually provoke discrimination.” Excluded from that quote was the end of the researchers’ sentence: “even among those who are low in prejudice.”

In August 2021, the appeals court ruled that Gilbert was deserving of a new trial.

In Intro Psych, we can discuss this case in the first few days of class, when we discuss the importance of psychological research. It would also work to discuss the Ehringer et al. second study as an example of experimental design—and then add how that experiment was used to support a new trial for Gilbert.



Anderson, M., & Najdowski, C. J. (2022, June). Legacies of racism in our halls of justice. Monitor on Psychology, 53(4), 39.

Ehrlinger, J., Plant, E. A., Eibach, R. P., Columb, C. J., Goplen, J. L., Kunstman, J. W., & Butz, D. A. (2011). How exposure to the Confederate flag affects willingness to vote for Barack Obama. Political Psychology, 32(1), 131–146.







About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.